Sunday, August 22, 2010

Leadership Thoughts from Netflix

Reading Dan Pink's blog this morning, and then looking at the Netflix slide deck shared on the blog, got me thinking about a question posed to me a month ago in a school leadership class at the University of Virginia that I was visiting as a practioner. A student in the class asked me a classic question, "when trying to turn around low performing schools, what works better, the carrot or the stick?" Since I don't come to visit graduate level classes very often, I stumbled around for a while before answering, "neither". I know, I was not very impressed with that answer either.

So in typical fashion for me, that question has been stewing around for quite a while with the thought of trying to blog about it. It took some thoughts from the leadership at Netflix to get me writing this morning. Here are some choice quotes from the slides:

"The best managers figure out how to get great outcomes by setting the appropriate context, rather than by trying to control their people."

When things go wrong, "ask yourself, what context did you fail to set?"

"When you are tempted to control your people, ask yourself, what context you could set instead. Are you articulating and inspiring enough about goals and strategies?"

And finally, "high performance people will do better work if they understand the context."

I love all of these quotes because I think they get at the ideas that truly define leadership. It is about building culture (I word I do use a lot) communally, and about setting context (I word I don't use but will now) or another way of putting it is it is all about framing things for people.

The thing I also love about the quotes/philosophy of Netflix is that it puts the responsibility to respond and reflect on the leader. If things are not going well, how can I communicate better, is a question I typically ask myself. I am not always sure other leaders in education do the same.

There is a lot of "blame the teachers and principals" in the current education policy world and blogosphere. As a principal in a building, I always cringe when I hear other administrators talk badly about teachers in any sort of way. Teachers, any sort of employee or humans in general, are largely creatures of their context.

In my school division, we are in the midst of pre-service time for teachers. It is THE Time to set up context for the staff.

What contexts have we tried to set up a Greer during this time?
  • Shared and distributed leadership
  • Shared focus on instruction
  • An "all out" effort to reach our community
  • Giving people some time to wrestle with our school improvement goals and strategies
We will see over time this year how successful we are with these contexts. I will be able to see through implementation in the classrooms. I will be able to see through carefully looking at feedback loops from both staff and community. And I will have to keep asking myself the tough questions when things do not go well, like, "where did I go wrong in setting the context?"

Here's to a great school year at Greer and schools everywhere!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Power and Potential of Planning

There are lots of cliche/quotes about planning. Failing to plan is planning to fail comes to mind. Or the planning is more important than the plan. Which, is a quote/cliche I actually like. But, needless to say, the word planning really gets no one excited in the world of education reform. It is, however, an extremely powerful action that would help us bring the "change" in education that we want.

At our school, we try to plan more than the normal school. We have an annual retreat in June where teachers work together to either plan instruction or fine tune the school improvement plan. This summer, I also have spent several powerful days planning with our assistant principal and instructional guides trying to plan leadership retreats, our pre-service week agenda, and our school improvement plan. I still feel like it is not enough. We need time to plan our work together. And we don't seem to have the resources to plan enough.

Our highly progressive, high functioning school system has a June and August leadership retreat where we review goals for the school year and learn new leadership strategies. They are powerful days but nowhere near enough. We need time to work through some of our improvement issues together as a leadership team, but we don't have the time.

One of my summer reads, Quiet Leadership by David Rock, says that "to take any kind of committed action, people need to think things through for themselves."

When we plan together, we can plan learning activities that engage all of the activities in our school so we can think through things for ourselves. We just need to rethink our use of resources to make things like this happen.

If a school continues with the "summer off" method of scheduling, teachers and school leadership teams should have several weeks of planning to make the kind of powerful changes we don't see enough in classroom instruction. During summer time, or some other off time, people have the mental space to think through things for themselves, in order to change.

That does not really happen the way we want it to, because we do the majority of our planning on the fly when we all have a million things going on during the school day or after school.

I don't think change will start occurring until we start to rethink the way we structure adult learning in our schools. Give me the resources to gather teachers for a few weeks every summer.

And I will stop bothering everyone.